Mastering communication: Using ‘Radical Candor’ for maximum impact

by May 11, 2021Feedback0 comments

There are as many different communication styles as there are people, and that diversity should be celebrated. When you have to deliver a critique though, not all communication methods are created equal.

Introducing ‘Radical Candor’ — a concept which is increasingly being recognised as an effective way to deliver feedback without alienating team members.

Every team member is worthy of respect, a truth which leaders must always keep in mind – especially when delivering criticism. Team members always deserve to be told the truth, including being given straightforward answers to their questions.

However, there is an inherent problem with this strategy. Offering criticism with straight-out directness is often mischaracterised as aggressive, obnoxious, or tactless.

So, how do you deliver feedback to a team member – without causing them to ‘shut down’?

Enter the idea of Radical Candor. It’s a way of telling an employee you respect them enough to offer an honest assessment of their work… without being unnecessarily harsh.

As journalist Ron Carucci points out, ‘One of the greatest gifts you can give those you lead is the truth about where their contributions can improve.’

This is all easy to say, but how would Radical Candor work in practice?

Let’s take a closer look at the concept, in comparison with some more traditional methods.

When everything’s going fine, Radical Candor obviously isn’t needed. It’s when things go wrong that it becomes an essential part of your arsenal.

Consider what a model response would be when an employee’s work needs improvement.

According to the Radical Candor model, you have four options:

  1. Tell them angrily what they did wrong and why you’re upset.
  2. Wait until the worker is in front of the whole team, then yell at them.
  3. Avoid telling them anything’s wrong, to prevent their feelings from being hurt.
  4. Tell them the work was fine, even though it wasn’t, because you want to get someone else to do it next time.
  5. Frankly tell them what they did wrong in private and suggest concrete steps to fix it.

The first option is called Brutal Honesty. While it might be satisfying for the employer, it’s not very constructive. By refusing to modify their words to protect a team member’s feelings in any way, the employer isn’t building any bridges for future improvements. While brutal honesty might be a legitimate tactic for serious offences, it’s hardly suitable for regular use!

The second option, Obnoxious Aggression, is unfortunately common in some workplaces. It’s a symbol of someone in charge who doesn’t appreciate or respect their employees as people. This is really about the leader taking their anger out on someone else – hardly the behavior of a compassionate and responsible leader.  

To avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, many people take the third option – Ruinous Empathy. This is perhaps the most dangerous, because it feels like a compassionate thing to do. Confrontation and conflict are avoided, and the employee’s happy – what’s wrong with that?

Quite a lot, actually. When leaders avoid stating difficult truths to avoid causing hurt, the team member never has the chance to digest the criticism and improve.  A leader with ruinous empathy cares so much about others’ feelings that they can’t tell them the truth.

The fourth, equally disastrous option is Manipulative Insincerity, where a leader simply fobs off the employee’s concerns because they’re too self-involved to understand (or care about) the hurt and confusion their mixed messages are causing. Instead of treating their team members as human begins, they simply use them as tools to achieve their goals.

That leaves Option 5 – Radical Candor. It’s clear why some employees avoid this – frankness is unavoidably difficult. But despite this initial stumbling block, Radical Candor is extremely helpful to the team member. It shows them exactly what they’ve done wrong without being unnecessarily nasty, giving them a simple roadmap they can follow while steadily working towards self-improvement.

There’s no denying that Radical Candor is harder than some of the other options mentioned above. That’s because it involves confronting the employee with a perfect balance of tact and honesty, which is far from easy.

But even if it may feel awkward at the time, the employee will appreciate the respect involved in Radical Candor. As workplaces become increasingly automated and remote, the threat of losing this personal thread of mutual respect is ever-present.

Engaging in Radical Candor is a way of preserving what we value most about each workplace environment – our ability to connect with other people. Even if the initial talk may be difficult, each team member will deeply appreciate your willingness to engage with them on a human level.

At Thinka, we understand that each team member is not static, but dynamic. To make the changes required, each team member requires accurate, detailed and sensitively delivered feedback from their leader.

Because team members aren’t machines, it takes them significant time and mental energy to change their behaviour.

At Thinka, we understand how important it is to respect that commitment. Using Radical Candor makes this transformation far more achievable.

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